In the past few years, space for book reviews has been steadily shrinking, leading some in the industry to worry that the age of the professional book critic could be at an end. But John Freeman, former president of the National Book Critics Circle and ambitiously prolific reviewer, has managed to keep himself busy by writing for about 200 publication in the U.S. and abroad. As NBCC president, Freeman, 34, drew national media attention to the issue of shrinking book review space. For this critic, there's plenty of work to do, both for him and on behalf of reviewing.
According to Freeman, the job of a book critic is “to be a public reader. Reading's a private, intimate experience. But to know what it feels like to read a book you haven't read, you need to have someone write to you about it, which is what a critic does: explain what it feels like to spend a few hours inside a book.” Freeman's attitude toward his job also implies his belief in the importance of reading to the health of the country. “You need to have someone reading publicly,” says Freeman, “to be reminded that a new book is out and that reading is really pleasurable. In our culture now, the critic is inadvertently but importantly an advocate for reading.”
After graduating from Swarthmore in 1996, Freeman came to New York and worked for two years in publishing, at Delacorte; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and Hyperion. When his girlfriend got tired of New York, Freeman moved to New England “with no job and no place to live, and that's when I thought, I'll be a book critic.” He got his start in the late 1990s when he sent a note to then PW Reviews director Sybil Steinberg (who would become Freeman's colleague on the NBCC board), asking if he could try reviewing. He had no clips, but Steinberg sent him three books and off he went. Freeman used his unsigned PW reviews as clips to get a gig at the Boston Phoenix. From there, he began writing for various alt-weeklies, and by the end of his first year, he was writing for 20 papers. After moving back to New York, Freeman dispensed with his last ever day job—editing a guide to children's books—and, by then, was writing for more than 40 publications. “Since then it's been freelancing for newspapers,” says Freeman.
Well, that and being an outspoken advocate for book reviewing at a time when papers seemed eager to let those pages go. When, in 2007, the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, among other major papers, announced that they were cutting their stand-alone book reviews or folding them into other parts of the paper—costing jobs for staffers and freelance writers, shrinking book coverage and infuriating many readers—Freeman, who was serving his year as NBCC president, stepped in. Freeman felt certain this was a job for the NBCC: “Review pages are being cut,” he says. “We have to say something about this.” So the NBCC began its Campaign to Save Book Reviews, which involved regular articles on the NBCC blog Critical Mass by writers; a protest in Atlanta, when the Atlanta Journal Constitution downsized its book review; and e-mail campaigns. The goal was to raise awareness, though few pages were saved. For Freeman, the most important thing was “to see how many people cared about it.” Freeman remains frustrated that economics trumps culture: “Unless there's some sort of visionary publisher at the top level, or some grassroots genius at the bottom level who has a way of organizing these different spheres, I think what will happen in the next five years will be even worse.”
For now, Freeman's finishing up the edits on his first book, Don't Send: The Unbearable Tyranny of Email (Scribner). Among the arguments he makes in the book, Freeman points out that e-mail has “fractured the day into a million little pieces. That can only be bad for reading, because reading requires long attention.” It's likely, however, you'll find Freeman either in front of a screen or behind a book: he's got reviews to write.